Monday, December 6, 2010

America and the Future of Basic Science

In a recent post I ranted about how the AMA had pushed to restrict the number of M.D.’s produced in America. But what happens in the other fields of science? Here’s how the process works, for both social sciences and physical sciences.
A professor encourages a lot of people to go to graduate school in his field and when they can’t get a real job, he hires them at low wages as a postdoc. So not only don’t you have to teach undergraduates, (I guess they smell funny once you’ve got a paper in Nature), you’re building a cheap labor pool.
In my article (Education in America and China) I quote one of the college seniors I was teaching, who said, “Hey, tell me more about that verb thing.” As you can imagine not a lot of Americans like him choose to study science or even learn how to figure out a percentage. Anyway, for a long time, becoming a college professor has been like winning the lottery. (I wonder how many history professors have been hired in the last 20 years. If it’s more than three, please hold up your hand.)
In the sciences, they long ago discovered that Indians and Chinese understand math and science and are driven to be very good at what they do. So they’ve filled up our graduate programs. I think maybe there is one white guy in biostatistics.
In addition, labs run on postdocs. There are training grants from NSF and NIH for labs to hire Americans as postdoc researchers, but not many want to become one as postdocs are well known to be "overworked and underpaid".  So now a majority of postdocs in our universities are from foreign countries.  A long time ago, foreigners from places like China wanted to stay after getting their seasoning in some white person’s lab, but now places like Peking University, Tsinghua and Fudan are full of brilliant people doing fascinating things, so why stay in a place that doesn’t have Lanzhou pulled noodles?
We can’t make them stay by giving them a teaching job at a university because there aren’t enough for American citizens. As India and China surpass America in the number of people who can understand logarithms and do difficult math, the future for science in America looks pretty dim. American college students have figured out that, even if they know calculus, going into that science pipeline isn’t encouraging. With states trying to pull themselves out of debt, they won’t want to hire new professors. Who will fill up those labs NSF chipped in to build? What does this mean for basic research in America? Sen. Arlen Specter was the guy who cared about NIH funding and he lost his job. Maybe Sarah Palin supports basic science and the Tea Party will make it one of their causes?

1 comment:

  1. I have long advocated turning more scientists into Americans rather than more Americans into scientists and one aspect of this you miss are the onerous visa restrictions put in place by Clinton and renewed by Bush - based on the artificial belief that blocking out foreigners would boost wages for natives.

    Instead what happened was more outsourcing on one hand and, since there are no restrictions on student visas, we train a lot of great minds and then force them to return home and be competitors to America even if they want to stay.

    There are too many people for jobs, yes, but that is how great work gets done, because in some sense a Ph.D. can be attained through endurance rather than brilliance and more people competing weeds out the people who just stick it out.

    Hank Campbell
    Science 2.0